Baseless rivalries


in Oxford, Rants

Michael Ignatieff uses the phrase “the narcissism of minor difference” during his discussion of the violent collapse of post-Tito Yugoslavia. Whereas once Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats were able to identify themselves on the basis of all sorts of characteristics, beliefs and affiliations, Ignatieff argues that the deteriorating security system effectively stripped people down to a base identity established in race, thereby splitting communities, undermining trust, and pushing things farther along the road to violent upheaval.

The intentional amplification of trivial differences seems to be a particular human talent – like seeing faces in random patterns. Among the most absurd examples of this intentional polarization and flimsily-grounded vitriol is the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry. It boggles my mind that people could feel hostile towards the other school, or people from there, simply on the basis of the minor differences that exist. In organization, in history, in societal role – Oxford and Cambridge are essentially the same.

There are some who argue that such rivalries are a form of healthy competition and that they somehow drive people to excel. This is the school of thinking that led to the brutish conditions in so many boarding schools where children are encouraged to fend for themselves and, like the participants in the Stanford prison experiment, rapidly begin to brutalize one another. While rivalries of this kind do create competition, it is not a competition that fosters or encourages healthy outcomes.

And yet there are intelligent, normally right-thinking people who describe their fellows at the other institution in derogatory terms. I suspect that it is precisely that similarity that generates the impulse to defend one’s choice through an assertion of superiority. The criticism is always semi-joking, but that hardly exonerates tho who carry it out in my eyes. Saying in jest that you despise someone for an utterly insignificant reason is no credit to you as either a comic or a human being.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. September 5, 2006 at 4:11 pm

There is a Wikipedia entry on the rivalry.

Sean September 6, 2006 at 6:01 am


I enjoy your posts a great deal. I think that people who really take the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry to an extent where they dislike the people from the other place have personality issues to begin with. It is more about them than the rivalry.

While I agree with you for the most part, I do not think Oxford and Cambridge are identical though they are similar with respect to the things you pointed out.

Spencer September 7, 2006 at 2:09 am

It may be worth looking at some other examples of Freud’s narcissism of the small difference on this blog:

There are two or three other entries on the subject.

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